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Environmental Artist, Activism Protect Nature

Patterson Clark’s least favorite invasive plant is Japanese stilt grass. That’s because he hasn’t figured out how to use it in his art. Boiling it yields weak brown ink. Its fibers don’t make for strong paper. It’s not even good for fuel. “It got over here as packing material. If that’s your best use, you’re a pretty sorry little plant,” he said wryly.

I met Clark, a hyper-local plant patriot and environmental artist, over coffee, a brown brew whose use no one questions. American country music played in the background as he spoke about his mission to rid the world—at least the wooded area around his studio—of alien weeds. With authority and training from the National Park Service, he frees native species by harvesting invasive plants in a section of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park. Then he makes art out of them.

By day, Clark creates science graphics for the Washington Post. So think Clark Kent and Superman—for nature. Even their names are half the same.

Back in Arkansas, our Clark majored in biology, a broader field than his father’s botany. After studying conceptual art and painting as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, he got caught up in the art of journalism.

“Visuals for newspapers must relate to a horizontal demographic. They have to appeal to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Fine art is oriented in the opposite direction. It has more of a vertical appeal, with a narrow audience, generally with an education in art. So I was won over by the egalitarian pursuit of journalism and focused my energies on that.” For a good while, he did op-ed illustrations for the Arkansas Gazette and Miami Herald. Until recently, he wrote the Urban Jungle column for the Post.

His superhero cape, or smock, was thus infused with environmental and social justice. By now, it’s well stained with the blood, or sap, of enemy plants.

Fine Invasive Art

Unlike stilt grass, most invasive species don’t flummox Clark. His website, Alienweeds, features not only finished pieces, but also the botany, chemistry, and environmental activism behind his art. Some of it’s quite complicated. For pigments, there’s Amur, or bush, honeysuckle, which yields turquoise, and leatherleaf Mahonia, which makes fluorescent yellow. To get purple, he crushes Asiatic dayflower, whose beautiful blue petals burst forth at dawn.

Out of white mulberry trees, Clark makes a bright, tough paper, perfect for prints. Paper mulberry, traditionally used in Japanese washi, is easier to harvest, but the pulp dries into a cream color, isn’t as brilliant as the stock he gets from its cousin. Armed with bamboo pens, porcelain-berry brushes, Norway-maple woodblocks, and other homemade tools, Clark minted “weed currency” out of his inks and papers. He determined the denominations by the number of invasive plants in each.

For carving, a favorite is Callery pear, whose blooms whiten the margins of highways come spring. Its well-known hybrid, the Bradford pear, hardly stayed sterile. Look nearly everywhere in forty-two U.S. states, and you’ll find Ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, rightly dubbed the “stink tree.” It contains a ton of water and tends to warp, check, and cup. But once its honey-colored wood stabilizes, Clark can plane and carve it to reveal its brown grain. Like Irish ivy (not to be confused with English ivy), boiling it drives him from the house for the funk.

Bad Plants

Both species are evil-smelling, evil-doing varmints of the plant kingdom—according to most environmentalists. And we humans are in part responsible for the infestations. Yes, every species has a use and, certainly, a right to exist, somewhere. Many are quite attractive. But what seems like a good green introduction in one era proves disastrous later on.

Take Ailanthus again: American botanists found it standing tall on Chinese temple grounds, alone, it turned out, because its roots released a noxious chemical that retarded the growth of surrounding plants. Ditto here, where, unlike most plants, it thrives on road salt and knocks out every native around it. If you whack back its branches, even its young trunk—bam—it comes back with a vengeance. Never mind all the seeds.

Invasive plants breed like rabbits. They spread quickly, often with little interference from hungry animals and diseases. Their weaponry includes runners and rhizomes and countless survivalist seeds with myriad methods for dispersal. Although native animals prefer to dine on indigenous species, they do eat invasives and poop the pips.

Birds drop them, while mammals amble about with pods stuck to their feet and fur. Kernels wedge in our shoes and dangle from our tractor blades. They muck up our mulch. Once mature, the invaders degrade ecosystems by competing with native plants for resources and pollinators. Rare species disappear. In no time, diverse landscapes turn into manic monocultures.

Clark removes the troublemakers. “My first act is always one of environmental restoration.” Usually, other non-natives grow in the spaces he frees, but some local wildflowers will take down stilt grass, unless deer devour them first. The Park Service has its own invasive-plant treatment programs. He can’t interfere by, say, sowing native seeds.

Invasives Anyone?

Like other environmentalists, Clark doesn’t favor using gasoline-powered tools and herbicides to manage the bad guys. “There’s a fellow in North Carolina who uses the Boer goat, a meat goat. He takes them into kudzu patches, and they fatten themselves up on the vine. They love it. He just keeps hammering with the goats until he exhausts the kudzu, without using a lot of poison or disrupting the ground. Why not provide food for people?” Japanese, who can claim kudzu as their own, and, increasingly, Americans in the Southeast make jellies, tea, even noodles from it.

Clark is an invasivore, too. He eats the grape-like, blue berries of leatherleaf Mahonia, which are loaded with vitamin C. Then there are the raspberry-ish wineberries, sold at posh farmers’ markets. Mulberries, the dark ones with native red genes, are tasty. They’re juicier than pure white mulberries but not as sweet, according to Clark. Garlic mustard, before it bolts, cooks into a delicious winter green. Pair it with a slab of invasive feral hog, deer, or Canada goose—if you’re into meat. In that case, best to slug some Mahonia juice first: like other members of its family, it contains berberine, an antimicrobial.

Educational Outreach

When hunting down art supplies (or foodstuffs), dog walkers and park goers sometimes spot Clark. He estimates that one out of ten people asks him what he’s doing. “I tell them what I’m up to. Mainly, they give me a wide berth. Dogs get weirded out by me and start barking. So people finally come over and put their dog on a leash. Sometimes they’re curious.” More receptive are the Weed Warriors, gardeners, scientific and botanical illustrators, environmentalists, and art and science students to whom he speaks regularly. Nurserymen, still intent on selling homeowners some of the nasties, haven’t asked him to share.

Right now, he’s working on a calendar for the American Printing History Association. He’s producing 136 sheets of paper for the month of May and designing an image to print with verse by his sister, a poet. In September, he’ll take off for SUNY/Fredonia to deliver a series of lectures on art and invasives.

Unlike Clark Kent, though, Patterson Clark rarely flies. Environmental artists and activists like him don’t like fossil fuels. But they do drink caffeine. So powered by an Americano with extra shots, he bade me goodbye to return to his day job. Like Superman, he was ready to save the forest floor with his handsaw, to make art from the vanquished.

Pediatrician, Parks Improve Child Health

Whenever he can, Dr. Robert Zarr takes a lunchtime stroll to a nearby park to commune with his favorite tree, watch children play with sticks and acorns—to practice what he preaches. Zarr is a pediatrician at Unity Healthcare, a clinic in northwest Washington, DC, and one of the brains behind the DC Park Prescription Program (DC Park Rx). Inspired by the writings of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, he and a growing number of colleagues prescribe nature to inner-city children who live with obesity, asthma, anxiety, and depression. From personal and professional experience, Zarr knows that just twenty minutes spent in green space can improve health. He’s also convinced that children treated with parks will become adults who steward the environment.

Success Stories

On a hot, humid day typical of summer in the U.S. capital, I joined Zarr on a bench in Meridian Hill Park to talk about his cutting-edge work in environmental health, or environmental healing. As he noshed on a healthy dish of okra, he told the story of a little girl now five or six years old. Her parents brought her to him because they were concerned about her inability to sit still at home and her frequent temper tantrums. Unlike many doctors, he didn’t prescribe a pill or lab test, and he didn’t refer them to a psychiatrist. Instead, he asked how she spent her weekends. They confessed she remained indoors the whole time. He explained that she might feel better after unstructured play in the woods. Would they be willing to take her to Rock Creek Park? Let her roam and listen to birds for two hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday? They agreed. During the follow-up visit, he deliberately didn’t ask them what happened. Toward the end of the appointment, they volunteered that the park prescription had worked. She was getting into far less trouble, could focus, and sleep much better. She was a different person.

Zarr is full of moving anecdotes. He worked with one young woman who was concerned about her weight. Together, they changed her long route to school on public transportation. She agreed to walk the last leg of the trip. Then, they added time in a park to her schedule. Her weight plummeted, and her confidence rose so much that she pursued soccer camp in the summer. She told her story on National Public Radio.

Why Park Prescriptions?

A park prescription can lead to frequent, evermore complicated encounters with nature. A child who picks up a stick with great trepidation the first time in the forest builds a tree house several months later. Over time, Zarr contends, a generation now deprived of the outdoors will no longer suffer from Louv’s nature-deficit disorder.

Right now, one in three American children are overweight or obese. Seven million have asthma, and close to six million have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Approximately, 3,600 young people are diagnosed each year with type-2 diabetes. Over recent decades, children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity. “We’re now very much a sedentary culture. Children aren’t moving. There’s been a culture shift from moving to sitting,” Zarr said.

DC Park Rx

That’s why he got moving. DC Park Rx is a community initiative of health providers and foundations, the National Park Service, DC Department of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, National Environmental Education Foundation, American Academy of Pediatrics, and George Washington University, where Zarr teaches public health. Across the United States, there are other programs, all part of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People. It drew inspiration from a similar program in Australia, where healthcare providers actually donate a percentage of their earnings to preserve and maintain green space. The DC Park Rx database went up in July 2013; it now lists 380 District parks. Zarr and his colleagues have written over 500 prescriptions on bilingual English and Spanish prescription pads.

Last year, he finished a study of approximately 400 children for whom he prescribed one or more parks for three months. On average, the patients spent twenty-two more minutes a day and six more days a year outdoors and in physical activity than other children. Next year, Zarr hopes to show that nature prescriptions lead to statistically significant decreases in overall weight, body mass index, blood pressure, and diabetic measurements like hemoglobin levels. He’d also like to document fewer visits to emergency rooms and less use of medicines by asthma and mental health patients.

For Nature and People

But does nature benefit from Park Rx and comparable programs? The question can touch a nerve in conservationists, Zarr admitted. After all, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Green Peace struggle to lessen the human impact on the environment to protect other species and their habitats.

“This would be a fascinating time to take health advocates and environmental activists and put them in the same room to come up with a consensus about how we can create a healthier population and planet,” Zarr said. “I’m of the opinion we can do both.”

He has had good support from local and national park services. “Park Rx doesn’t exist only to decrease the burden of chronic disease,” he said. “It’s intricately linked to conservation efforts. If we don’t get kids to appreciate a tree, we’re in big trouble.” Today, most environmentalists worldwide are over fifty and white; they don’t reflect the future. Zarr, not quite fifty and fluent in Spanish, would like to be part of a paradigm change. He feels a sense of urgency.

Fortunately, he doesn’t encounter much skepticism or lack of compliance in the families he serves. Individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds warm to Park Rx. After all, given the opportunity to eat well and spend time in nature, most people jump at the chance. Any barriers that exist are systemic, Zarr believes. Children spend too much time inside schools preparing for standardized tests and too little in recess and physical activity. Parents work two to three jobs. Zarr knows mothers who spend forty dollars on train fare to get their children to the clinic. They find cabs cheaper. Because of climate change, it’s often too hot or too cold outside. Yet architects still design buildings without windows or green roofs, without indoor or outdoor landscaping.

“People are in desperate situations. We need to ask ourselves as a population if our routines are healthy for the planet and us,” Zarr advised. “What constitutes happiness and well-being is the nature of what we’re talking about—pardon the pun.”

How Park Rx Works

The Trust for Public Land scored over fifty of the nation’s urban areas on access to parks. The Washington, DC, metro area came in sixth. A number of District parks are adjacent to recreation centers with pools, stationary bicycles, and yearlong programs. So users can pursue regular or “green” exercise. Enter a zip code into the Park Rx database and out pops at least one park or green space within a five-mile radius. Usually, people can walk to its gates. If not, they can take the recommended bus or Metro line. Although database volunteers don’t research crime stats, they do subjectively rate parks on safety and cleanliness at different times of the day. They also note who visits the parks. Park Rx encourages people to go as families and use parks in different ways—to develop a sense of ownership.

For some people, particularly those coming out of violence here or, say, Central America, connecting with park rangers and families like theirs can alleviate fears. Park officials must be committed to greeting everyone, including those who might have had traumatic experiences in forested areas. “It’s a doctor’s job to be culturally aware of their patients—where they come from, their backgrounds, experiences, and routines—to make educated decisions about the right time and place to prescribe nature,” Zarr said. “The onus is on the doctor to establish a relationship with the person they’re counseling. For the health-provider community, Park Rx is a tool.” A good one the public can access.

Other Tools, Future Plans

At Unity, there are two other tools for doctors and patients, including the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition (appropriately abbreviated We Can!), a National Institutes of Health program. Children and adults spend the first half of classes indoors to get their vitals measured and learn about healthy eating. Then, they go to Meridian Hill Park for aerobics.

When asked what he had in the works, Zarr said he would soon find out if he had funding from the DC Department of Health to finish and revamp the database. He wants to make it more user friendly for providers and individuals, so they can search for activities like jogging, swimming, horseback riding, and qualities like shade and cleanliness. He’d like to have the time patients spend in parks come back via their smartphones to their electronic medical records. He’d also like to design an app and find out what patients learn about nature.

But even the near future is a dream—or so the starlings were shouting from the trees. The man who had walked laps before us for an hour had gone inside. “It’s very, very hot, and I’m almost getting dizzy,” Zarr suddenly said. Whether his infectious enthusiasm or the weather had overheated me, I had to agree. The day’s park prescription had run its course. I looked forward to another.

Crochet Coral Reef Sends Woolen Warning

Before me lay a room-high mound of warm-woolen fuzzies and lanolin-puffing fringees in blues and greens, reds and golds, white-beiges and browns. Mesmerized, my inner child waited for Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat to pop out to tell the story of the Crochet Coral Reef, an international project started in 2005 by the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. Its founders, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, knew that the Great Barrier Reef of their native Australia was in bad shape. They called for help.  Artists responded.  Together, they crocheted a reef that grew faster than corals ever did, even before climate change.

I saw the reef in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The show brightened an otherwise dim hall near museum cases about living corals. The juxtaposition drove home the relevance of the arts to environmental issues and inspired me to learn more about corals, global warming, and ocean pollution. I had just the reaction the reef’s creators and museum’s curators planned. In fact, based on my visit, I decided to blog on where health, environment, and the arts meet, my tagline.

Crochet is a “feminine art.” So when the reef set out for Washington, DC, four homeless women of N Street Village joined 200 local crocheters to spawn baby corals for the 4,000-piece reef. Women combating poverty and ill health came to the aid of embattled corals through art. With their hooks, they crocheted model hyperbolas, the shapes corals take that have fascinated mathematicians for centuries. While the curvy, yet straight linear forms grew so did the bonds between threatened human artists and corals, between land and sea creatures.

As the women and exhibit goers learned, excess atmospheric carbon, water pollution, destructive fishing, coastal development, coral mining, and careless tourism have already killed 20 percent of the world’s reefs. Coral reefs are the largest biological structures on Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is visible from outer space. But reefs grow slowly. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. They harbor 25 percent of all marine life and provide food, income, coastal protection, and the ingredients of life-saving medicines for millions of people. With the rise in temperatures and release of carbon, oceans are becoming acidic enough to kill reefs. One colony of the Crochet Coral Reef is white and beige to represent bleached, skeletonized corals. Another is full of human detritus—beer tabs, plastic bags, and cassette tape.

Depressing as the state of the world’s corals is, the Crochet Coral Reef is probably the most effective and delightful means of delivering an environmental message imaginable. If only the Cat in the Hat’s VOOM would emerge from all the colorful yarn to clean up the mess we, the Little Cats, have made of the ancient reefs!